In yesterday’s edition of the Parish Bulletin, I had written the following contribution, penned as it notes during last week’s conference:
As I write this column, I’m in beautiful Kincumber attending the annual Clergy/Parish Leaders Conference, where we have been grappling with a question that I would like to summarise as
What does it mean to be an evangelising community of faith?
And to hasten to give some response to that question, the answer is much more than simply what programs we offer, and what services people can access through our Parish.
In fact, I would strongly argue that programs and services in and of themselves are not evangelising in any way. And that is because evangelisation is not about getting people into the church, but about getting ‘the church into people’.
At the heart of being evangelistic is not teaching doctrine, or celebrating liturgy (yes, you heard me say that!), or running schools, or hospitals, or social welfare agencies. It’s not about advocating for social justice issues, or commenting on public policy.
At the heart of being evangelistic is introducing people to the person of Jesus.
And that is fundamental to the missional identity of the Church and therefore of the Parish. And we can’t simply rely on wonderful programs and services to do that. Introducing people to Jesus requires us, the people who are the Church, to be prepared to speak and witness to our own relationship with Jesus, and to witness to it forthrightly and courageously as the Apostles did after the first Pentecost.
Everything else—doctrine, liturgy, schools, hospitals, social justice—comes as a result of a group of people who know Jesus, and who choose to follow Jesus, attempting to live as Jesus would like to us to live. But there won’t be a group of people doing all of those things unless we first introduce Jesus to other people.
And if we’re not introducing other people to Jesus, by things we do or do not say, or do or do not do, are we being authentic in our own relationship with Jesus?
It’s certainly worth thinking about.
And I have been continuing to think on it, at least in the background, ever since.
There is a power in the question that really cuts to the core of who the Church is called to be. Our fundamental orientation is outward looking, not inward looking. Our primary rationale is to attend to the world, not to ourselves. Our primary focus is the kerygma, not the community.
A recognition of this orientation, rationale and focus, however, can provide a challenge to those who are already within the walls of the Church. It can be quite discomforting to realise that those of us who already believers are not to hold ourselves satisfied that we are ‘saved’ while others, those outside the Church, are not. It can be disorienting to discover that the task of those who are ‘on the inside’ are tasked not to maintain the walls of the Church against all comers, but to break down those same walls so that others, having heard us proclaim the Gospel, might find it easy to join us in the same place around which some people attempted to build those same walls.
Anyone who is familiar with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) will recognise the significance of the ad extra orientation that is intrinsic to the Christian life. The Introduction to the RCIA lists this responsibility first in the section entitled “Ministries and Offices”:
In light of what is said in Christian Initiation, General Introduction (no. 7), the people of God, as represented by the local Church, should understand and show by their concern that the initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized. Therefore the community must always be fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ. In the various circumstances of daily life, even as in the apostolate, all the followers of Christ have the obligation of spreading the faith according to their abilities. (RCIA, no. 9)
There can be little doubt about who is responsible then for the task of evangelisation either. If a community wishes to celebrate Christian initiation with adults (or children or youths…) then the community must also be engaged in the prior task of announcing the kerygma, of introducing others to the person of Jesus Christ who is, after all, at the heart of everything. Without knowing Jesus, there can be no coming to faith in God, and thus there can be no joining with a community of fellow believers to continue the proclamation of the kerygma. If the community of faith wishes to survive, to continue its existence, it cannot focus all its energy and attention in on itself.
I don’t have any easy answers as to how to turn this theory, this theology, into practice. I suspect that there can be as many answers to the questions raised as there are communities of faith since each community will have its own distinct set of circumstances. What I can venture to say, however, is that any community who cares more about its own continued existence, with the services it offers to its own members, with the programs it continues to run, will eventually cease to be. This is even more so for those communities who refuse to entertain the possibility that embracing their fundamental mission to be evangelists will mean that their own self-understanding of who they are will be changed as new members are attracted by the very task of evangelism. If a community wishes to maintain the status quo, to keep things as they are or always have been, then the only thing they can be certain of is the eventual demise of that community in any shape or form.
So what does it mean to be an evangelising community of faith? Many things I would suggest, but chief among them is a desire to make Jesus known.